HOW I BECAME (silent)
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
Sticks & Stones, Love — but words can do deeper damage (especially the ones we strangle in our throats).
Ah, the difference 2 years can make.
Me at 4; Me at 6
Although I‘ve never lost the Spock eyebrow.
“Teacher comin’! Teacher comin’!”
A bunch of kids run back to their seats, giggling. Not me. I did as I was told. Mrs. Erickson said to stay in our seats, so I did. Becky never does. Now neither does Suzy. She used to be my best friend after Johnny, but ever since we came to school, now she’s mean to me, too. She used to only be mean when the big kids were around, but Becky must have told everybody how they chase me through the woods and wreck my forts. Somebody for sure told what Johnny and Suzy’s big brothers call me.
Now all my new classmates sing it at me.
Harty-Farty. They make fart noises when I sit down. They say I stink and blame their farts on me, and now other kids don’t want to sit next to me anymore. They move their chairs with their noses plugged, saying, “Peee-ew!”
Becky was just standing behind me, sniffing the air and saying it again. Suzy and Kimberly and Tony and Dan have been taking turns darting close to sniff and then run. But now Mrs. Erickson is coming back. It’ll be okay once the teacher is here. They don’t dare call me names and tease me like that when an adult is around.
Our teacher’s clicky heels sound outside the door. I heave a sigh at that sound. My shoulders have been hunched up into rocks since she left, but I relax and reach for the green crayon. I’m almost done coloring my page. I only have the grass left. I bet Becky hasn’t even started. Serves her right. I hope she gets her name on the board. She’s a big troublemaker. She gets the other kids to make trouble too, because she’s bigger and meaner. And louder. Her voice hurts my ears and she knows it. She loves to yell in my ear.
But with the teacher back, she’s finally quiet.
Mrs. Erickson circles around our table, looking over our shoulders and saying things about what we’ve colored. “Very good,” and “The sky should be blue, not red,” and “Try to stay inside the lines.” She gives me a, “Very nice,” so I beam and draw a sun up in the corner above the smiling kitty.
Teacher doesn’t leave us alone for the rest of the morning, and I’m glad when the lunchtime bell sounds. We only go to school for half the day. I’ll be glad to get back home where nobody can tease me.
After we put all the crayons and markers and paper and scissors away, we line up at the coat rack. It’s starting to get cool, so I have to wear my red jacket. It’s not time for the blue wool one Mom made from Dad’s old Air Force jacket. That one’s almost too small for me, but the red one fits nice, and it has a hood and pockets and everything. It matches my red bag that —
“Hurry up now! Stop daydreaming.” Mrs. Erickson grabs me by the shoulders and turns me around to face her. She’s wearing her scrunchy-face as she jerks my jacket closed and zips it up. “We don’t have all day to wait for you, Pokey Little Puppy.”
Somebody laughs behind me. Somebody else makes doggie noises.
I don’t like that book. I have a little stuffed puppy that I play with in the sandbox and I let him be as pokey as he wants. His name is Flop-Ears.
“If you don’t hurry up,” Mrs. Erickson snips down her nose at me, “your mommy won’t let you have any dessert and then won’t you feel sorry for yourself?”
No. I won’t.
Mom always lets me have dessert no matter how pokey I am or how many things I stop to look at or how many questions I have.
Mrs. Erickson hates my questions so I’ve stopped asking her. She always huffs and rolls her eyes and talks at me down her nose. Her nose reminds me of Miss Gulch’s, and when she’s cross, she even sounds like her. Her head pokes toward us and her eyes go squinty like the Wicked Witch of the West, and I think she would look very good with a broom and a—
She grabs my shoulders again and shoves me into line. “Come on now, Pokey. Let’s get moving so we can all eat lunch sometime this century. All right, class, have a very good afternoon.”
My eyes go squinty, too, but more like Toto as I glare at her sideways. I say what we’re supposed to: “Have a very good afternoon, Teacher.” But I say it grumbly and growly. I want to bite her leg.
As we file out of the room, it starts like it always does on the playground and in the woods and all the way home — all the places where there are no adults to scold mean kids. First from behind me, very quietly: “Pokey Little Puppy….Pokey Little Puppy…” Other kids laugh and glance back at me. When Mrs. Erickson doesn’t make it stop, they join in.
My shoulders hunch up again. I grab my bag close to my chest. When I pass under Teacher’s nose, I glance up to see that she’s smiling her, “Very good,” smile.
She’s laughing too, and she looks more like the Wicked Witch than ever. They keep singing her mean name at me. Once we’re on the road away from the school, they dance around me, pulling my hair and pushing my shoulders and poking at me like Flying Monkeys. They follow me the whole way home until I finally escape into my house. The next day, they sing it when they see me and they sing it on the playground and they sing it in the gym when it’s my turn for jumprope.
“Teacher comin’!” might still send them scurrying back to their seats to do their work, but it never stops them teasing me anymore. Now they don’t even hide their fart noises in class. There’s something mean in Teacher’s eyes. I think she secretly likes it when they call me “Farty.”
Second Grade Fall
My classmates have a notebook. They pass it around whenever Mrs. Wilander’s back is turned. They’ve been giggling and whispering about it for three days, sneaking it under desks and handing it off at the coat rack. At lunch, they’re like a bunch of chickens, waving their hands and squawking about it.
They call it a Slam Book.
I’ve heard what it is. The notebook has a page for everybody in the class, arranged in alphabetical order. When you get the book, you write what you think about each person and then pass it on to somebody who hasn’t had it yet. Once everybody’s had their turn, you’ll get the page with your name on it.
The day Kimberly slides that famous blue notebook onto my desk, my eyes go huge. They’ve never let me even glance at the Slam Book, much less write in it! “Don’t let Mrs. Wilander see it,” she whispers, then slides into her seat and hand-combs her perfect, feathered hair.
I glance at our teacher. She is writing double-digit addition problems on the chalkboard, so I shove the notebook inside my math book, and then sneak a quick peek at the first page. Aaron’s name is at the top. There is almost a whole page of writing under his name in different color ink, different handwriting. Some are almost impossible to read; others are very neat. One person has even dotted three exclamation points with little hearts after the words, “Super cute!!!”
I grin my best Garfield Cool-Eyes grin, thrilled to be included for once. “Yes, super cute,” I write, then go on to the next name. It’s Becky’s. “Builds awesome forts,” I write. Under Blaine’s name, there are many comments about the amazing things he draws, one “Weird,” and a “Cute.” Grinning, I write, “Super nice and a great artist!”
I am about to flip to the next page, but curiosity gets the better of me. Mrs. Wilander is still scribbling away, so I thumb through until I come to my name.
What I read on my page steals the breath from my lungs like the wind off Lake Superior in February.
My stomach is achy and churny. It got that way a few weeks ago when Tony Woodhull punched me in the gut as hard as he could at recess. I almost puked.
Now I gulp hard against the lump in my throat. I almost can’t get it down. My eyes swim, making all the letters blurry so I can hardly see them.
Thinks she’s soooo smart. Farty-Harty stink bomb! Tattle tail! Stuck on herself. Smelly poop-pants cry baby. Ugly. Super ugly!!! Super stinky scaredy cat! Thinks she’s better than everybody. Smart, but a spaz. Ho-hum suck your thumb, big cry baby! Weird. Super smart but she knows it. Nice. Yuck! Run home and cry to —
I can’t read any more. I can’t breathe. Can’t think. Can’t see anything but those horrible words. Mrs. Wilander is talking again. Numbers. Columns. Pointing at the chalkboard. I can’t hear her. I’m dizzy in my seat.
From the corner of my eye, I see it start. Kimberly turns around to look at me. She shares a grin with Becky and Paula. Paula pokes Dan in the back. He turns around. Paula nods her head at me. He grins too. Other eyes bomb me.
I don’t look back at them. I shut the Slam Book. Remove it from my math book. Shove it under my armpit onto Aaron’s desk. They all turn away like they have won the Superbowl. They sit a little taller. Lift their chins a little more. I’m sure they’re still grinning.
I finish my math problems in record time. Easy. Of course. I’m super smart.
And I know it.
There is a bowling ball on my chest. I don’t understand how they could think those things about me. I’ve always known they thought I was ugly, weird, just plain didn’t like me. But stuck up? They are the ones who walk around, looking at me like I’m a smelly dog turd, and I’m the one who feels like a turd whenever I’m around them. I wish more than anything to be friends with them, so I don’t understand how they can possibly think that I think I’m better than them!
So what if I’m smart? So what if John Swanson and I have our own reading group? They say I am reading at a sixth grade level and it’s only the beginning of second grade. I don’t understand why being smart is so bad. John is super smart. Stacy and Carin are smart, but nobody hates them for it. Why do they hate me?
OK, so my name rhymes with “fart” and has the longest line of stars behind it. What’s so wrong with having the best grades in the class?
And tattle tail? I never tattle. Ever. If I was a tattle tail, I’d be up at our teacher’s desk all day, every day and after school and first thing in the morning. I just can’t lie, that’s all. And my parents ask me a lot of questions. Really specific questions. Somehow they always know when I’m leaving details out. It’s like they can read my mind or something, and they’ll keep digging and digging until they get it all out, and when they do, if we were doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing, then trouble happens. But I learned a lonnnng time ago — I get in way worse trouble if I do something bad and lie about it, so I’ve just learned the hard way to own up when they ask.
That doesn’t make me a tattle tail.
Eventually, Mrs. Wilander does find out about that Slam Book. She and the principal are still trying to find out who started it but nobody’s tattling. The rumor going around is that our teacher got it from Walter Sobczak. I heard about what was on his page. It was even worse than mine. He just moved here this year. He has red hair and freckles, and he hardly ever gets to take a bath. His clothes actually do stink. He doesn’t get very good grades. He really is a nice boy, but when the others tease him, he gets mad so easily and his face goes brighter than his hair. He cries when he gets mad and that is really bad for a boy to do. At least I’m a girl and can get away with it a little more. I don’t get punched near as often as Walter.
He will definitely get it after school now because Mrs. Wilander took the Slam Book away and destroyed it.
That’s all right. I’ll never forget what I read. And I will never, ever, everagain let them know that I think I’m smart or good at anything.
Me: about all of My Favorite Things
Second Grade Spring
Today we are doing Good, Better, Best. Mrs. Wilander has told us to think of our favorite foods and then we’ll go around the room and say what we like to eat the best.
When it’s my turn, my eyes get huge and I gush, “Pizza and Mom’s homemade macaroni-and-cheese!”
She shakes her head and gives me a little smile like I haven’t understood her. “No, no. Which one is your favorite in the whole wide world? Which one do you like the best?”
My brows wrinkle up. I can’t pick between those two. I like them both equally, and they are my absolute favorites. They are both The Best. I tell her this, and she huffs at me.
“You can only pick one. Which one do you like the best?”
I huff back and put on my best Princess Leia face. “I am never supposed to tell a lie, and to say that I like one more than the other would be lying. I like them both the same. And I like them both the best.”
She crosses her arms in front of her with this really cross look. All around me, the chorus of groans swells up. “Just pick one!” they yell, and “Gaaawd! Hurry up already, Pokey!” The eyes roll. The sighs bomb me. They are all yelling at me to just pick one over the other.
But I refuse. I cross my own arms and sit up tall in my seat. I will not tell a lie.
“Well, then,” Mrs. Wilander says, “you will sit out in the hall until you can decide which one you like THE BEST.”
So I march out into the hall. It is shadowy out there. Afternoon. Weak sunlight comes in through the windows in the doorway, casting long, warped rectangles across the floor and up onto the wall. Art projects cover the walls, up and down the corridor. Dancing bears and twisted crepe paper on paper plates and construction paper chains. A rainbow in my dark world.
It is very quiet out here. Except for the fact that I’m in trouble, I think it’s the best place I’ve been all day. Maybe all school year. If I could just do all my assignments out here, that really would be the best. The hall smells of paste and the janitor’s mop cleaner. Behind the closed doors, the sounds of other classes are muffled. When I do some dance steps on the floor, my clappity feet echo and I smile at the sound.
I wonder if Princess Leia felt like this, alone in that locked room, holding out no matter her doom.
But Leia is pretty and all the boys want to kiss her. They don’t call her mean names and sick their dogs on her and dangle Halloween spiders in her face from the top of the stairs. They fight to free her from the evil Lord Vader.
I know in my heart that none of those boys in there will ever fight for me. I wish I could fight back. I want to be Jana of the Jungle or Wonder Woman. I want to be a Charlie’s Angel, but they’re all tall and strong and they have weapons and magic jewelry and tigers. They’re all pretty, too.
I am not pretty. I have hair like a boy’s and it’s not blonde anymore. I have brown eyes. Pretty girls have blue eyes and long, feathered hair. They can toss it from side to side in the wind like Farah Fawcett.
But Diana and Leia aren’t blonde…
Sometimes when I’m alone at night, I wrap my blanket around my forehead to pretend that I have long, dark hair. On really hot nights when I only sleep in my undies, I swish my head from side to side, just to feel the blanket brush back and forth across my back. I love the way it feels to pretend I have long hair. To pretend that I’m not ugly.
To pretend that I’m not me.
I started signing my name Lisa over the summer, but Mom wouldn’t let me do that and I was really mad at her for a week straight. A Lisa is pretty. A Lisa is cool. A Lisa is anything but —
A door opens across the hall. The noise level rises, then drops again as the door closes. Mrs. Erickson comes out. I hate her. Those squinty eyes. That pursy frown. She still looks at me down her nose. Forever Pokey Little Puppy, I see. She sneered that at me a couple weeks ago when I was the last one at the lunch table.
I like being last. The cafeteria is quiet then, with only the lunch ladies laughing as they clean up behind the counter. The lunch ladies are nice to me. Unlike all the kids I’ll have to be around on the playground. And unlike Mrs. Erickson-Gulch.
As she passes by, she glances at me, glances at the door to Mrs. Wilander’s room. She smirks as though she’s not surprised to find me in trouble even though I have never, ever had to stand out in the hall for anything. I stare back at her, and can’t help but blush. I’m going to be in big trouble for this at home.
And that thought…
That is like aiming the Death Star at Alderaan.
Mrs. Erickson’s smirk widens and she goes down the hall, her little heels clicking and her plaid skirt swishing.
I feel sick to my stomach again. I’m dizzy as I lean against the wall. I’ve never even had my name on the board except once, in first grade, when I didn’t realize I was making “vroooom” noises in writing class. I wasn’t reallyin trouble that day. I didn’t even have to tell my parents.
But Mrs. Wilander always sends notes home when kids get in trouble and you have to bring it back signed. My parents are going to be told that I was bad and I didn’t even do anything wrong! But that won’t matter. You don’t ever, ever talk back to an adult.
But you’re not supposed to lie either. Isn’t it wrong for teachers to teach kids to lie?
A thought comes to me right then. Mrs. Wilander doesn’t actually care which food is my favorite. That’s not why she asked me. She doesn’t care how I feel or what I think. She doesn’t care about the truth. The other kids for sure don’t care. They never have.
They all just want me to follow along and do as I’m told and hurry up about it so that they can have their lunch this century and get their desserts and gold stars and get to recess. Finish and shut up. Hurry up and eat faster. Say what I want you to say or you’ll be in trouble.
And if I get in trouble, what will happen to me? Where can I flee to when the Flying Monkeys chase me after school? Where can I run to when Gill Ardley lays in wait for me in the woods because he figured out my sneaky way home? If my dad turns into Darth Vader because I came home with a bad note from my teacher, where will I be able to escape to when the Troopers storm my hidden rebel base in Snow Plow Hill and stomp it flat with their Moon Boots?
I really do love macaroni-and-cheese AND pizza the best. Both of them. Not one or the other, but both, equally best. There’s nothing I like better and I like them the same amount, and no one wants to hear that. They would rather that I lie to get along.
I know that I’m not going to be allowed back into that classroom until I can tell the lie, and if I still haven’t behaved by the end of the day, I don’t want to know what my teacher will write.
Mrs. Wilander opens the door and stands there blocking the way with her arms crossed. “Well? Are you ready to participate in class again?”
I nod and come back inside. I slink into my seat to the chorus of snickers and whispers. Hunch down with my arms crossed. I don’t look at anybody.
I don’t need to look at them. I already know what they’re saying with their eyes and their smirks. It’s the same thing Mrs. Erickson said when she saw I was in trouble.
Well, fine. Never again.
I have made a steel door in my throat. The door has a great big lock on it and a sign that says, “Keep out!” It has another door inside it, smaller, like a doggie door to only let out those things that will be all right to say from now on. Everything else I’ll keep to myself.
Because the truth is, I’m no rebel princess. I’m ugly and I never had a blaster, and nobody cares that I’ve been put in shackles and marched away. There is no Luke and no Han coming to save me. There aren’t even any droids.
“So tell us.” My teacher stands at the front of the room like an Olympic victor on the podium. She is smiling that teacher-smile. Order is restored in the galaxy. “Which one do you like THE BEST? Pizza or macaroni-and-cheese?”
I don’t remember which one I picked. It doesn’t really matter.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE:
--UP NEXT: THE WORST THING I EVER DID AS A KID- On Reaching For the One-Ring
--We'll be dancing with my oldest ghosts now, with the things that make TBI more cumbersome than it already is, and yet simultaneously set me up with many of the tools to weather it the way I do. They are also the origin stories of how I became a Dancer and a Martial Artist, and why I write the fiction I write. For more on those topics, see: